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Serena Williams Is On The Verge Of Making Tennis History — Again


Stop us if you've heard this before.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: That's Serena Williams back in a U.S. Open final.

CORNISH: With that forehand volley, Serena Williams finished off her opponent last night. She now heads into the U.S. Open finals. And if she wins on Saturday, it will be her 24th major singles trophy. That would equal Margaret Court's record for the most ever. William's opponent is Naomi Osaka, a Japanese-American who is playing for Japan. She's the first Japanese woman to reach a Grand Slam final. She was just a year old when Williams won her first Grand Slam. And she's idolized Williams throughout her career - what a matchup. To talk about this and more, we brought in Clinton Yates. Welcome to the program.

CLINTON YATES: Hello. How are you?

CORNISH: He's a columnist for the sports and culture site The Undefeated. And before we get any further, you are an unapologetic Serena fan. So what do you make of this moment?

YATES: To qualify that, it's not just that I'm a Serena fan. She's my favorite athlete of all time. So I think that for Serena - for her to come back from the story that everybody found out about, in terms of complications with birth, and to get back to this level of tennis this quickly is really quite remarkable. There's the tennis aspect of her getting back. There's the human aspect of who we see now from Serena as a star and as a tennis player and as a human being in America - you know, seeing her as a mom, seeing her open up with her personality and seeing the way that she's really turned outward, in order to let everybody know who she is, because for so long she was - I wouldn't say guarded. But her image was very well and very smartly protected in terms of who she wanted to present to the rest of the world.

CORNISH: Judging from her performance in last night's match, is she playing at her best?

YATES: I think she's playing better than she did at Wimbledon. And it was funny because in the last game she came to the net a couple of times, which is not something she normally does in her game, in terms of the serve and volley game. And she said, at the end of the match, I normally only come to the net to shake hands - which means normally when I'm winning these matches, that's the only time you'll see me this close to the next opponent. So for me, I think she's hitting the ball well. I think she's in shape.

CORNISH: Into all this walks Naomi Osaka. She has idolized Serena herself. And I want you to listen to this clip from after Osaka's victory in the semi-final, when a ESPN reporter asked her what message she has for Serena Williams.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Given how much it was in your mind and how much you said you wanted it - a message to Serena.

NAOMI OSAKA: I love you (laughter).


CORNISH: OK, so this is not exactly sounding like she's psyching herself up here for battle. But what must this be like for Osaka or any player going up against Serena right now?

YATES: I can't imagine. I mean, certain players take it some way. Certain players take it others. The player who Serena faced I believe in the quarters, before their match, decided she wanted to talk a little trash and say that Serena's mouth was bigger than her game was. And she similarly got dispatched in the next round. And Serena didn't say a word. I think for Naomi, this is genuine.

She is Japanese-American. But I believe her father is Haitian. She's a woman of color who's come up on the circuit in a way that she's only been able to see Serena as an idol. She played against Madison Keys, who was as well biracial. And I think that if you look at where the tour is now, between Sloane Stephens and the three players we've just mentioned as well, you've got to recognize the influence of the Williams sisters - and so many other people around the tennis world. So it's got to be a real thrill for her.

CORNISH: From what you know of Osaka's play, can she beat Williams?

YATES: I don't think she's going to. She's beat her before, but that was not a Grand Slam final. And I think that, from the strength of her ground strokes, she's probably going to find a way to maybe catch her off balance and try to slip her up and make Serena move more than she normally does. But that's the problem with Serena's game. She gets you back and off the baseline. It's really hard to get into your matchups. And you end up trading ground strokes. And then there's just the psychological battle of seeing your opponent across the net, and it's the best player of all time. So if you can get over that hump, in the biggest stage in Flushing Meadows, sure, maybe you have a chance. But, you know, many have tried. Many have failed.

CORNISH: Clinton Yates is a columnist for The Undefeated. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

YATES: Anytime.

(SOUNDBITE OF RJD2'S "DISCONNECTED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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